Making TV show on South Side was ‘a little scary’ but essential, says star Courtney B. Vance
The searing “61st Street,” coming April 10 on AMC, examines race, politics and justice in what the actor calls a “super-segregated” city.
In the searing and instantly engrossing Chicago-based series “61st Street,” a drug dealer is shot dead by police, a cop dies while pursuing a suspect — and the ramifications are felt throughout the city, in the judicial system, in the jail, in the media, on the streets and in the homes of a myriad of families whose lives will be profoundly and forever changed by this terrible but all too familiar scenario.
Co-executive produced by Michael B. Jordan, filmed in Chicago, debuting April 10 on AMC, AMC+ and ALLBLK and slated for a two-year run, “61st Street” stars recent Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”), Holt McCallany (“Mindhunter”), Mark O’Brien (“City on a Hill”) — and at the center of it all, Courtney B. Vance. The Tony and Emmy Award winner has mastered the stage in productions such as “Fences” and “Six Degrees of Separation,” appeared in films such as “Hamburger Hill,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Isle of Dogs,” and starred in TV projects such as “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “Genius: Aretha” and “Lovecraft Country.”
On “61st Street,” Vance plays Franklin Roberts, who has been a Chicago public defender for 30 years and is on the verge of retirement when news breaks about an arrest warrant for one Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), a college-bound high school athlete who has never been in trouble, is a shining star in the neighborhood and is considered “untouchable” by the gangs. Franklin feels he has no choice; he’s going to defend Moses.
On a recent video chat, Vance told me about why he was drawn to the role and how much he has come to admire the city of Chicago.
“This was a huge show, 16 episodes,” said Vance. “I don’t think any of us really understood the depth and the breadth of what we were attempting to do in the midst of COVID. We did two [seasons], with a weeklong break in between seasons. We shot on the South Side, and I think that gives the show so much. It wasn’t easy, it was a little scary at times, but you have to honor the show. The show is a South Side show.”
There’s a line delivered by Franklin in the premiere episode that sets the tone for the series. He’s in court, desperately trying to get the judge to feel empathy for the plight of his client, and he says: “When you ride your bike [east to] the lakefront, which way do you turn? When have you ever turned to your right?” Everyone who lives in Chicago or has spent any time in Chicago knows what Franklin is getting at.
“Chicago is, as they say, one of those super-segregated cities, based on the great migration that happened from 1900 to about 1970, when 2 million people a year were coming up from the South to get out of that horrific sharecropping situation,” says Vance. “We were all harmed by … slavery. And we’re all suffering the ramifications and repercussions of it. That whole idea of, ‘Which way do you go when you’re going to the lake?’ is a question for all of us.
“The judge took offense, of course. This is why we’re having trouble in our schools, trying to teach about what our past may have been. Stop talking about [George Washington] and the cherry tree. That’s what we grew up on. Yes, Washington was a great man, but he also had a hundred slaves. George Washington, as was the case with all of the Founding Fathers, was a man of his time. No judgment. The whole world was centered around slavery. Everybody was doing it. All of a sudden it goes away and you think there’s not going to be residual effects? We’re still dealing with it.”
As much as “61st Street” takes deep dives into racial strife, Chicago city politics, the court system and realities of daily life in the city when you’re a young Black man, it’s also a character study. Franklin Roberts isn’t some one-dimensional, crusading hero; he’s a family man with a wife who’s launching a campaign for a local office, and they have a teenage son who’s on the spectrum. Franklin is also newly diagnosed with a serious health problem. He’s vulnerable, physically and emotionally.
“He’s a man of his times,” says Vance. “His life is gray, shades of gray. He’s about to retire after 30 years and he asks his wife, ‘Have I done any good, honey? Have I accomplished anything?’ His wife tells him he’s done as much as any man could have done within that system. The system chews you out. … And of course, life happens … and life happens to Moses. He’s done all the right things, he’s had that conversation that all Black families have, about what to do when you [have an encounter with the police]. White families don’t have to have that conversation.”
Like so many of our best actors, Vance has been drawn to television as the writing has become richer and the shows feel more akin to feature film productions. “I think that’s why so many movie stars are doing it,” he says. “Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Meryl … while you’re waiting for your wonderful film role, the Emmy opportunities are endless with the great writing on these limited series. Look at ‘Ozark,’ Laura Linney and Jason Bateman, that show grabbed me so tight. It’s a phenomenal way to explore character in a way you don’t have the opportunity to do in a film.”
As for shooting “61st Street” in Chicago, Vance says: “Chicago is the third character in this series. She is the most amazing, beautiful city. There’s so much we’re dealing with in our world and in our country that’s being dealt with in Chicago. Chicago is a very passionate city, emotions are high. … I adore that city.”